Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Semiotics: The Matrix For All Sciences

[S]emiotics pertains to a renewal of the foundations of our understanding of knowledge and experience across the board, and hence to a transformation of the disciplinary superstructures culturally distributing that understanding (the traditional disciplines as currently founded). Semiotics also pertains to the renewal of any single currently established discipline within, say, the humanities, but only by way of achieving a proper understanding of semiosis itself in some particular. It is thus not just a question of putting aside the ill-advised or, as Culler more mordantly muses (1981: 20), "futile attempt to distinguish the humanities from the social sciences". It is, rather, a question of new foundations for the "sciences" in the ancient sense of the whole panoply of disciplinarily diversified human knowledge - be the object of the diversity "human", "natural", or "social" (in the current description). Semiotics is a perspective concerned with the matrix of all the disciplines, precisely as they are offsprings within experience of anthroposemiosis.

This claim is at the heart of semiotics' so-called "imperialism". It is not a question of imperialism, however, but of recognizing the role of experience as the ground of understanding throughout and the centrality of history in making of that ground a rich soil. It is more a question of recovering from the imperialism of the natural sciences, physics in particular, as the distinct heritage of positivism, and of seeing the subsets of semiosis within anthroposemiosis for what they are in relation to the whole.

Floyd Merrell makes the point nicely, in a note on his recent text (1988: 262 n. 12):
. . .in general the hermeneutical movement has been beneficial insofar as it has directed attention to the role of interpretation and understanding in the humanities. However, Stephen Toulmin observes, and rightly so [1982: 99-100], that this movement 'has done us a disservice' also because it does not recognize any comparable role for interpretation in the natural sciences and in this way sharply separates the two fields of scholarship and experience. Consequently, ... the central truths and virtues of hermeneutics have become encumbered with a whole string of false inferences and misleading dichotomies.
A truly "radical hermeneutics", such as Caputo calls for (1987), must first of all come round to the semiotic point of view, for that point of view, that standpoint, achieved its first systematic expression precisely by an author (Poinsot 1632: 38/1ff., commentary in Deely 1985, 1988) realizing and thematizing the point that interpretive activity or "hermeneutics" (the privileged term for the notion then was "perihermenias", as noted in Deely 1982: 188n.16) is coextensive with the life of the mind - and, we would add today, extensive of nature itself as engendering life.

This is the governing insight of the semiotic enterprise integrally conceived in all its phases and periods. Semiotics provides a perspective on the whole of experience in what is proper to it as experience. In achieving this, it becomes "first" among the sciences not as one among the others, such as traditional metaphysics envisaged, but as doctrina contrasts to scientia (Williams 1985; Anderson et al. 1984; Sebeok 1976a: ix) and as what is first in the understanding contrasts with what is derivative therefrom (Deely 1987, 1988, 1988a). [...]

To study the sign is to uncover semiosis, and therewith a web as vast as nature itself. The arrangement, the web of renvoi sustaining the environmental and sensible elements at each moment according to patterns that are not themselves sensible nor reducible to what is sensible, constitutes the semiotic object in its full possibilities for understanding.

This is a "reality" quite different from that prejacent given in which the mind had no part and to which the observer contributed hopefully nothing, conceived by the medievals and sought by the moderns. Nor is it a reality wholly reducible to the mind's own workings on the basis of a hidden outer realm and a hidden inner mechanism of understanding linked only by the phenomena constituted by the mind itself, as Kant concluded. Something much richer than either reduction, something more collusive even than the rapport between fly trap and fly in the realm of insects and flowers, this newer paradigm - in a phrase, semiotic reality - recognizes that the boundary between what is dependent upon and what is independent of interpretive activity can never be finally fixed from within experience because the boundary itself fluctuates in function of the development of understanding, whether "speculative" or "practical", "scientific" or "literary". [...]

Furthermore (and in this it provides the matrix for natural science as well), semiotics is the field studying the process whereby any object is constituted in its full actuality as known: not simply as a process in nature, but also as the prise de conscience whereby nature becomes fully aware of itself and achieves its final totality in the transcendence over physical being. This process of transcendence begins with the historical Umwelten and is fully realized in the reflexivity of the Lebenswelt that makes of each text a prospective intertext incorporating life and fiction and the whole of nature as well through a semiosis metaphysically unlimited and even physically, though limited, not wholly determinately so.


Source: John Deely, "Zoƶsemiotics and Anthroposemiotics," in Basics of Semiotics (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990),

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